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Cambodia has made tremendous progress in reducing the number of people living in poverty in the past decade. Today, approximately two out of 10 Cambodians are living below the poverty line, compared with five out of 10 in 2004, according to the World Bank. However, Cambodia still remains one of the poorest and least developed countries in Asia—and poverty and hunger go hand in hand.
More than 60 percent of Cambodia’s population depends on subsistence farming for survival. In rural communities, hunger is chronic: rice is a staple food, and it is the main crop. Many families become extremely vulnerable during the “hunger gap”— the period between the last planting season and the next harvest, when rice stocks run out, and food prices in markets tend to increase.
Action Against Hunger is working across Preah Vihear Province to break the cycle of hunger by providing safety nets for the poorest families and improving their access to food and income. Our teams spent months in villages, listening to communities and conducting assessments to identify both the challenges and the solutions to overcoming chronic hunger.
One of these solutions is a very simple one: setting up community rice banks to provide safety nets and manage the risk of disaster and hunger for the poorest families. When families run out of rice stocks during the hunger gap, they resort to buying it in local markets. Poor families have to borrow rice, or borrow money from local lenders. Interest rates can be extremely high, trapping families in a cycle of poverty, debt, and hunger as they struggle to pay back their loans.
That’s where the rice banks come in. Action Against Hunger helped individual rice farmers and families come together to form an association. All of the members contribute rice to stock the bank, which is managed by community-elected representatives. The rice bank allows extremely poor families to borrow rice in tough times at low interest rates that they can repay without major hardship. This protects them from hunger as well as from crippling debt.
Action Against Hunger’s Country Director in Cambodia, Jean Luc Lambert, says: “It’s a community approach that allows vulnerable people to have access to rice during the lean season. It’s quite simple, but it’s very important. Poor families in Preah Vihear are in chronic, overwhelming debt just to meet their basic food needs. They have no safety net if disaster strikes—no assets, and nothing to invest in improving their income. If they can spend less on food, they are able to invest more in their livelihoods. That’s how they become more resilient to crisis and hunger.”
The photos below tell the story of Kompenh village, its new rice bank, and the people who came together to make it happen.
Dara Vann, a community mobilizer for Action Against Hunger, conducts the first information session In the village of Kompenh to educate families about rice banks.
In community meetings, villagers learn about the benefits of rice banks, and commit to to participate. Members decide where it will be located and elect a committee to oversee the bank. In her role as community mobilizer, Dara’s job is to inform communities, explain how the banks work and how they will benefit people, answer questions, and encourage as many people to join as she can. She says, “It is not easy to encourage villagers to join the community rice bank. Some want to join, but don’t have any time. I spend a lot of time explaining the benefits until they fully understand and agree.”
Chen Korn (middle) sits with her 15-month-old son, Khorn Sokunna, and her neighbors as they listen and learn about how to set up a rice bank in their village of Kompenh. She’s been elected to serve as treasurer of their bank committee. The rice bank committee is responsible for managing the bank, including monitoring and setting the prices and the interest rates for rice and seeds to help make sure poorest families can afford to borrow and buy what they need from the bank without putting themselves in jeopardy.
When Chen was younger, she wanted to become a nurse or a doctor, but her family couldn’t afford her education beyond primary school. She was able to learn to read and write, and she’s proud to be able to put those skills to work as she serves on the rice bank committee: “I was able to finish primary school, and I know how to write. That’s why I was elected to the rice bank. I can meet with people and help them borrow rice, and that makes me feel good.”
Action Against Hunger’s staff prepares the first community rice bank distribution in the Kompenh village. The rice banks were set up in partnership with World Food Programme, and with funding from our generous partners at Google, through a project called “Food for Asset.” Community members contributed the rice for the bank, as well as the labor to build it, manage it, and run it on their own to build resilience to hunger now, and for years to come.
Dara leads another community learning session in the village of Sraem Tgong. Dara works with community members in several villages in Preah Vihear Province, where Action Against Hunger is focusing its efforts.Occasionally, Dara stays overnight in the villages—a chance for her to get to know people even better: “I enjoy sleeping in the village. Villagers here are most willing to accommodate me, and it gives me the feeling that I am at home. By staying with them here, I can understand the situation of the families and communities better.”
Chen hopes that the rice bank will help her family and her community to build better lives for their children: “I would love to have enough money to send my kids to go to school. When they have knowledge, they can go to work and earn money. I want my youngest to become a policeman—that’s a good job.”
Chen works the fields with her husband, Khum Sokhorn. They met at a village dance, and have two little boys: a fifteen-month-old and a three-year old. Khum told us about the work he and Chen do together each day to make a better life for their family: “Farming is hard because we don’t have enough tools or materials, and because of the climate. Drought makes it hard to grow the rice, and then too much rain comes and makes it rotten. My wife worries that I will tire doing all of the work by myself, so we both work together, in solidarity.”
The community rice banks that Action Against Hunger has set up will not only make loans of rice to poor families who need it, but also give stocks of rice as payment for labor to people who are helping to dig new community ponds, designed to collect and store water to irrigate crops and safeguard against drought. The community ponds are another disaster risk management and food security project supported by Action Against Hunger in Preah Vihear.
Photographies © Guy Calaf pour Action contre la Faim.
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